Some of the earliest memories I have in life involve a young boy, a larger than life Dad, and an odd, dimpled, orange ball that bounced in a magical way. In my earliest years, I was blessed with a love of this beautiful game.
When I was five years old, my Dad signed me up for a community basketball camp where local coaches ran us through drills and sat us down for the basic rules of the game that James Naismith created 100 years before I ever sank my first hook shot.
I remember being so excited with the opportunity to show my Father what he had already taught me and making him proud - double dribbling is when you dribble with both hands and what I considered to be a near picture perfect layup. In truth, this was only the beginning of what I'd learn from the game of Basketball as introduced and taught to me by my Dad.
My Father, Benjamin Joseph Burns, was born May 30, 1940 and spent his formative years near the thumb in the small town of Memphis, Michigan. As a life-long journalist and teacher, he was never short of stories - literally and figuratively - standing at a lanky 5'20" tall (his words, not mine). The following is just a few of the most important lessons I've learned from him over the years.
#1: Earn Respect, Take Action, and a Slice of Humble Pie
As a freshman at Memphis High School, standing all of 5'7" and 130 pounds soaking wet, he had yet to hit the growth spurt that would lead him towards his eventual nickname of "Big Ben."
Early in the year, during gym period, a class bully would continually cut in line while students took turns shooting jump shots. While his classmates got more and more frustrated, he took the initiative and informed the bully he would no longer be cutting in line. The Bully, well over Six feet and built like your typical farm-fed Michigander, simply asked, "Whose gonna stop me?"
"Me," my Father responded, just before jumping up and popping the Bully square in the nose. Through blood and anger, the bully proceeded to beat the crap out of my Dad.
#2: Family Means More than Basketball
Four years later, and 12 inches taller, my Dad had made a name for himself as a small-town basketball star. The Detroit Times named him to their 1958 Class D All-State Basketball team and as a 6'8" dominant Center, the Head Coach of MSU's Men's Basketball, Forrest Anderson had taken notice.
Two years earlier, my Dad's older brother, Jim, made his way to MSU and as a 6'6" All-State basketball player himself, should have had a great shot at making the team. Anderson, not interested in a forward measuring only 6'6" promptly cut him from the squad.
When Anderson approached my Dad with a full ride athletic scholarship, he graciously declined and reminded him that his brother Jim was a better basketball player than he was and he'd never play for a coach that would cut his older, better, brother. Besides, he already had a full-ride Academic scholarship.
#3 There is Always Time for Levity and Respect your Elders
Later in life, when I was 11 or 12 years old, my Dad had already evolved from player to Coach. While still larger than life, he didn't always demand the attention of 10 or so pre-teen boys on your average Wednesday evening practice. While we chose to ignore his guidance on pick and rolls, he quickly ascertained that something needed to be done.
So, in an effort to garner the attention of a bunch of juveniles, he turned to face his backside at us, bent over, and began talking out of his ass, a la Jim Carrey from Ace Ventura. "Uhhhhh Excuse me, may I ASSSSSS you a few questions?" As we stood there laughing hystiercally at my Dad's somehow uncanny Ace Ventura impresonation, he calmly spoke to us from his ass once more and said, "10 laps! Get goin!"
#4 The Game Will Always End
My Dad died today, September 7th, 2012. In his final days, my Dad continued to teach me so much. As his fight with terminal illness and Leukemia were coming to an end it got harder and harder to see the man that I remember.
But through momentary periods of clear consciousness, he'd break the stress and tension with an aptly timed morbid pun, play a practical joke by letting out a yell when I'd place a cool towel on his neck before responding quietly with "Gotcha!", and most importantly reminded my siblings and me that we will always be his greatest success.
But even the best athletes and coaches must face their final buzzer. And in doing so, my Father accepted his fate with bravery, and did so in a way I can only hope to replicate when my own game ends. If his performance in life were to be compared to the NBA, he would no doubt be a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame.
The Blessing of Basketball
In the past 72 years, my Father was so much more than a Basketball player or coach. In his 29 plus years as my Dad, he gave me so much more than a love of the game. But his greatest blessing bestowed on me was and always will be the blessing of Basketball.
Through Basketball he blessed me with a strong work ethic, the ability to deal with adversity, teamwork, the importance of family, the value of earned respect, standing up for yourself and others, exceptional comedic timing, and unstoppable left-thanded hook shot, and so much more.
Thank you Dad, for everything you taught me. I can only promise you that I will do my best, and heed your wisdom every day. Most importantly though, I promise that with my daughter entering this world in December, I will pass on the same gift you gave me: the blessing of love for the game of Basketball.